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Woodland council OK’d hefty severance packages prior to officials’ terminations. Here’s their reasoning.

By Matt Esnayra, The Daily News
Published: January 30, 2024, 8:02am

LONGVIEW — In November, four of seven Woodland city councilors voted to increase the size of severance packages for three top city officials shortly before the outgoing mayor terminated one of those employees and another city official. Months later, one councilmember says he feels used by the outgoing mayor.

Former Mayor Will Finn said the terminations, which came just before his term ended, were a way to protect employees from being treated unfairly by incoming Mayor Todd Dinehart — a claim Dinehart chalks up to Finn’s loss in the November election.

But before Finn’s abrupt decision — which Dinehart said cost the city $200,000 — the City Council voted to increase the severance packages for three city leaders to match former City Administrator Peter Boyce’s six-month severance.

What happened?

Boyce and Public Works Director Tracy Coleman were released from their contracts Dec. 28 for no cause, according to termination letters from Finn, which also included compliments for both employees.

Their notices were given on a Friday; Dinehart’s term started the following Monday.

All of the employees’ contracts said they could be let go for no cause.

On Nov. 20, the City Council increased three severance packages to match Boyce’s: Coleman’s package increased from three to six months; Woodland Police Chief Jim Kelly’s went from four to six months; and Community Development Director Travis Goddard’s went from two to six months. A clause specifying termination “must be agreed to in writing by both the employer and employee” was added to each contract.

Coleman and Boyce were let go, while Kelly and Goddard still work for the city.

In addition to those changes, Woodland Police Lt. Jennifer Ortiz’s contract was also altered Nov. 20 to allow her to keep the dog in the department’s canine program after working for a year, compared to three years under the previous agreement.

Ortiz’s position was eliminated in Woodland’s 2024 budget. Finn spoke highly of Ortiz in his email announcing the terminations. The position was re-budgeted once Dinehart took office.

Who voted against contract changes?

Councilmembers John Burke, Melissa Doughty and Monte Smith, who voted no on the contract changes, said the changes seemed suspicious.

Burke told The Daily News he voted no because the department heads recommended the changes. Before the Nov. 20 vote, Burke tried to remove the item from the agenda and postpone the issue to 2024, but the motion failed.

Smith said he voted no because he “didn’t want to put a financial burden on the city.” He said he wasn’t told directly of Finn’s plan to let Boyce and Coleman go, but understood the measure was aiming to “try to protect employees” if they were let go.

He and Doughty also expressed concerns at the Nov. 20 meeting about the financial impact of increasing severance packages, and Smith said potential wrongful termination suits could be filed against the city.

“I would like to see any termination come before (the) City Council to make sure that it’s a valid termination before it just happens,” Smith said during the meeting.

Boyce clarified at that meeting that the mayor holds the authority to fire staff.

Who voted for contract changes?

Terry Hall, DeAnna Holland, Carol Rounds and Aaron Alderman voted to OK the contract changes but Alderman said he now feels betrayed.

Alderman, who was replaced by Douglas Freimarck Sr. in the November election, said he voted for the change because Colman, Boyce and Goddard have “done more for the city while they’ve been in those positions” than the previous office holders.

He also heard Dinhart was going to clean house.

“(I was) under the impression he was going to come in and just wipe everything out,” he sad. “Anything or anybody that had anything to do with Will Finn was going to be gone.”

Alderman said Finn brought up changing the contracts to protect the employees from the incoming mayor. He said he feels “pretty used” by Finn.

“I think once he realized that he was not going to win the election, (he and the departing officials) had this worked out,” said Alderman.

Holland, who lost to Gabe Huston in the November election, said she stands by her yes vote. She said she voted to change the contracts to match Boyce’s six-month severance package with the other officials’ contracts to “put everyone on the same playing field.”

She said anyone who says they didn’t know what they were voting for is lying because the changes were attached to the agenda well before the vote.

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“I’m 1,000% OK with how I voted,” she said. “I remember the information that was provided at the time.”

Huston, who was not on the council at the time of the vote, told The Daily News that Finn, Boyce and Coleman’s exit was “premeditated” and “dishonest.”

At the Jan. 2 meeting, Dinehart said filing lawsuits against the terminations would be futile.

“We can’t chase good money out of bad money,” he said, as litigation could cost the city more in attempting to retrieve the funds.

During the council’s first meeting of the year, residents also sounded off about the changes.

“Wow, Finn screwed the taxpayers,” said Woodland resident and former city clerk Mari Ripp. “Golden parachute for sure.”